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Five Under-the-Radar Books

I was thankfully able to read some wonderful books whilst in the horrid period of lockdown.  To my surprise, I found that many of them, to date, have been seldom read by other bloggers and reviewers.  I thought, therefore, that I would collect together five books, all of which I feel warrant far more attention than they have had to date.  All are relatively new releases, and should be readily available wherever you get your reading material from.

 

52889970._sy475_1. A Saint in Swindon by Alice Jolly a dark, dystopian story about the sheer power of literature in uncertain times (certainly fitting to read during the lockdown period…)

When a stranger arrives in town, with a bulging blue bag and a whiff of adventure, the neighbourhood takes notice. When he asks for his meals to be sent to his room and peace and quiet for reading, curiosity turns to obsession. Each day he stays there, locked in his room, demanding books: Plath, Kafka, Orwell, Lawrence, Fitzgerald, James, Bronte (the eldest), Dickens, Dumas, Kesey – on and on, the stranger never leaving his room. Who exactly is he? What is he reading? And will it be able to save us from the terrible state of the world?  Written by award-winning author Alice Jolly, and based on an idea by the book lovers of Swindon town, this funny and, ultimately, dystopian tale, reminds us of the importance of literature in an increasingly dark world.

 

2. The Harpy by Megan Hunter a dark novel, very much in the vein of Hunter’s debut, 50433219._sy475_The End We Start From, which feels startlingly original at times

Lucy and Jake live in a house by a field where the sun burns like a ball of fire. Lucy has set her career aside in order to devote her life to the children, to their finely tuned routine, and to the house itself, which comforts her like an old, sly friend. But then a man calls one afternoon with a shattering message: his wife has been having an affair with Lucy’s husband, Jake. The revelation marks a turning point: Lucy and Jake decide to stay together, but make a special arrangement designed to even the score and save their marriage–she will hurt him three times.  As the couple submit to a delicate game of crime and punishment, Lucy herself begins to change, surrendering to a transformation of both mind and body from which there is no return.  Told in dazzling, musical prose, The Harpy is a dark, staggering fairy tale, at once mythical and otherworldly and fiercely contemporary. It is a novel of love, marriage and its failures, of power, control and revenge, of metamorphosis and renewal.

 

46258455._sx318_3. On Chapel Sands: My Mother and Other Missing Persons by Laura Cumming – an engrossing memoir of the brief disappearance of Cumming’s mother, and the tumultuous history which the pair discover of her past

‘Uncovering the mystery of her mother’s disappearance as a child: Laura Cumming, prize-winning author and art critic, takes a closer look at her family story.  In the autumn of 1929, a small child was kidnapped from a Lincolnshire beach. Five agonising days went by before she was found in a nearby village. The child remembered nothing of these events and nobody ever spoke of them at home. It was another fifty years before she even learned of the kidnap.  The girl became an artist and had a daughter, art writer Laura Cumming. Cumming grew up enthralled by her mother’s strange tales of life in a seaside hamlet of the 1930s, and of the secrets and lies perpetuated by a whole community. So many puzzles remained to be solved. Cumming began with a few criss-crossing lives in this fraction of English coast – the postman, the grocer, the elusive baker – but soon her search spread right out across the globe as she discovered just how many lives were affected by what happened that day on the beach – including her own.  On Chapel Sands is a book of mystery and memoir. Two narratives run through it: the mother’s childhood tale; and Cumming’s own pursuit of the truth. Humble objects light up the story: a pie dish, a carved box, an old Vick’s jar. Letters, tickets, recipe books, even the particular slant of a copperplate hand give vital clues. And pictures of all kinds, from paintings to photographs, open up like doors to the truth. Above all, Cumming discovers how to look more closely at the family album – with its curious gaps and missing persons – finding crucial answers, captured in plain sight at the click of a shutter.’

 

4. You Have To Make Your Own Fun Around Here by Frances Macken a thoroughly 52759381._sx318_sy475_enjoyable novel about three friends set in the Republic of Ireland, and their formative years

Katie, Maeve and Evelyn – friends forever, united by their childhood games and their dreams of escaping the tiny Irish town of Glenbruff. Outspoken, unpredictable and intoxicating, Evelyn is the undisputed leader of the trio. That is, until the beautiful, bold Pamela Cooney arrives from Dublin and changes Glenbruff forever… Told from Katie’s witty, quirky perspective, Frances Macken’s debut beautifully captures life in a small town and the power of yearning for something bigger. Filled with unforgettable characters and crackling dialogue, You Have to Make Your Own Fun Around Here takes a keen-eyed look at the complexities of female friendship, the corrosive power of jealousy and guilt, and the way that life can quietly erode our dreams unless we’re willing to fight for them.’

 

43447542._sy475_5. Attraction by Ruby Porter – so much more than a road trip novel set in New Zealand, there is so much to admire within this collection of fictional vignettes

Three women are on a road trip, navigating the motorways of the North Island, their relationships with one another and New Zealand’s colonial history. Our narrator doesn’t know where she stands with Ilana, her not-quite-girlfriend. She has a complex history with her best friend, Ashi. She’s haunted by the spectre of her emotionally abusive ex-boyfriend. And her period’s now weeks late.  Attraction is a meditative novel of connection, inheritance and the stories we tell ourselves. In lyrical fragments, Porter explores what it means to be and to belong, to create and to destroy.

 

Have you read any of these?  Which pique your interest?

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‘Books for Living: A Reader’s Guide to Life’ by Will Schwalbe ****

Some years ago, I was on a cruise around the Mediterranean.  On a day spent at sea, I devoured Will Schwalbe’s moving debut memoir, The End of Your Life Book Club, much of which has stuck with me to this day.  I requested his second book, Books for Living: A Reader’s Guide to Life from my local library with high hopes, and settled down to read it amidst the mounting pre-lockdown panic which Covid-19 brought with it.  Books for Living proved to be a wonderful piece of diversion from current events.

The New York Times deems Books for Living ‘inspiring and charming’, and Publishers Weekly comments ‘Schwalbe’s tremendous experience with reading and his stellar taste make for a fine guide to the varied and idiosyncratic list of books for which he advocates.’  Publishers Weekly also promises that ‘By the end of the book, all serious readers will have added some titles to their to-read lists.’  (I certainly did this.)  The book’s blurb describes it as a ‘magical exploration of the power of books to shape our lives in an era of constant connectivity’ – or, as I found, in the midst of a pandemic. 37831664._sy475_

For Schwalbe, as indeed is the case for most of us, I expect, reading is a way ‘to make sense of the world, to become a better person, and to find the answers to the big (and small) questions’.  In Books for Living, he has therefore compiled a list of books ‘that speak to the specific challenges of living in our modern world.’  He has chosen to split the book into quite a few different sections, entitled in such ways as ‘Searching’ and ‘Trusting’ to ‘Quitting’ and ‘Disconnecting’.  Each of these sections focuses on a specific work.  Books for Living opens with a recurring dream of Schwalbe’s, in which ‘the thought of being bookless for hours… jolts me awake in a cold sweat.’

The books which he selects are wonderfully varied; he considers running and napping with the aid of Haruki Murakami; the enduring characters in Dickens’ David Copperfield; the core message of the delightful Stuart Little by E.B. White…  There are books here which were originally written for children and adults, and which take place in fictional worlds.  There are gems of non-fiction, and even the odd self-help book. He writes of ‘crowd-pleasers’, and of those books which he feels have been unfairly forgotten, or have slipped under the radar of the reading public.

Not all of the books which Schwalbe addresses and comments upon in Books for Living are his favourites, but each has either spoken to him, stuck with him for a particular reason, or allowed him to see things from a perspective other than his own.  Some of these books helped him through incredibly difficult periods in his life, primarily the death of friends from HIV, and the passing of his mother.  One of the most touching chapters, I felt, is ‘Giovanni’s Room’, where a beloved librarian in his hometown quietly selected a lot of LGBTQ+ literature for Schwalbe to read, to help him realise and come to terms with his homosexuality.

Schwalbe continually asserts how the reading process of any book changes him as a person.  He writes: ‘I’m not the same reader when I finish a book as I was when I started.  Brains are tangles of pathways, and reading creates new ones.  Every book changes your life.’  He goes on to comment: ‘I’m not just a fifty-something-year-old reader; I’m the reader I was at every age I’ve ever been, with all the books I’ve ever read and all the experiences I’ve ever had constantly shifting and recombining in my brain.’

Schwalbe wonderfully demonstrates the power which books hold over all of us.  It is a joy to encounter a book like this, written by someone who reads so widely.  Not all of the individual tomes appealed directly to me as a reader, but I read Schwalbe’s own commentary with a great deal of interest.  I appreciate his honestly and openness throughout.  So much of Books for Living was relatable for me as a fellow bookworm.  It is a book which is as entertaining as it is full of heart.

I shall end this review with perhaps the most enduring message from the book: ‘When I most enjoy reading, I’m not really conscious that I’m reading.  It’s at those moments when I’m so wrapped up in a book, so engrossed, so moved, so obsessed, or so fascinated, that the part of my mind that is watching me read – maybe keeping track of the pages or trying to decide how much longer I should keep on reading – that part of my mind has gone away.’

 

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‘The Twelve Birds of Christmas’ by Stephen Moss *****

I adored Stephen Moss’ The Wren: A Biography, which I read quite recently, and was keen to get my hands on a copy of The Twelve Birds of Christmas.  The idea behind it is rather charming; Moss tells ‘the enthralling story of twelve iconic British birds’ by ‘playing on one of our best-known carols’.  Like The Wren, this proved to be another firm favourite of mine, and it was the perfect tome to kick off my Christmas reading with.

In The Twelve Birds of Christmas, Moss has given an avian interpretation to the famous Christmas carol, ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’, which first appeared in its written form around 1780.  He personally describes it as ‘endlessly parodied, highly memorable and occasionally infuriating’.  Together with his own commentary, ‘he weaves history, culture, bird behaviour and folklore into a compelling narrative for each species’, and traces their fortunes over the centuries since the carol first appeared.

To anyone who knows the carol already, birds feature heavily, but Moss asked himself whether the entire carol could really be about our avian friends.  He muses: ‘… I look beneath the surface of this familiar carol, and reveal what I believe is an alternative meaning to the verses.  For in my view, every single one of the carol’s dozen lines could plausibly be about a particular species of bird.’
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The birds which Moss focuses on here are both rare and common in the United Kingdom.  In turn, he writes about grey partridges, turtle doves, domestic chickens, blackbirds, yellowhammers, geese, mute swans, nightjars, cranes, black grouse, sandpipers, and woodpeckers.  In each separate chapter, he weaves in observations made throughout history about his chosen birds.  These largely come from naturalists who have influenced Moss’ own career.  He links each species rather cleverly to the original carol; the crane, for instance, has been selected to represent ‘nine ladies dancing’ because of its entrancing mating dance.

Focus has been placed upon the effects of individuals determined to reverse the decline of bird species, many of which have a current status which looks rather bleak.  Of the turtle dove, for instance, Moss writes: ‘Once so common that observers didn’t even bother to send in records of the species, by the turn of the millennium it had disappeared as a breeding bird from the county’ of Somerset, where Moss’ home is located.  Some of the birds featured in The Twelve Birds of Christmas have thankfully fared better; the blackbird, for example, is the fourth most numerous bird in Britain, and is ‘present in 96 per cent of all the 3,862 10 kilometre squares in Britain and Ireland, in both summer and winter.’

Throughout, Moss touches upon so many different elements of bird life: the domestication of birds by humans; the migratory patterns of different species; folklore; and the effects of climate change and the destruction of habitats on bird numbers.  The chapters are relatively short, but the book itself is undoubtedly thorough.

The Twelve Birds of Christmas is a darling book, even lovelier than it sounds.  Gloriously illustrated throughout, and impeccably researched, Moss gives such attention to detail.  His enthusiasm for nature shines through on every single page.  His prose is rich and captivating, and it is so easy to read.

The structure which Moss has fitted his twelve birds around works wonderfully, and he certainly makes an engaging argument.  The Twelve Birds of Christmas is a really great, and slightly alternative, book to pick up for Christmas, from a man who is fast becoming one of my favourite nature writers.

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‘Reindeer: An Arctic Life’ by Tilly Smith ***

Tilly Smith’s Reindeer: An Arctic Life, which has been recently reissued in a lovely hardback edition, was a book which I wanted to incorporate into my winter reading.  Thankfully, I found a copy whilst browsing in the library, and settled down with it on a chilly Sunday afternoon.  The book was first released in 2006, and was originally entitled The Real Rudolph.

61sblxjsxjlI love books about animals and the natural world, but have never read anything specifically about reindeer before.  The blurb describes Smith’s memoir of sorts as follows: ‘In this enchanting book, self-confessed “reindeer geek” Tilly Smith leads the reader through the extraordinary natural history of the reindeer with charming anecdotes about her own Scottish herd.’  Smith is the owner of Britain’s only ‘free-living’ herd of reindeer, which roam in the Cairngorms in Scotland, an area which provides ‘Britain’s only sub-arctic habitat’.

Reindeer have lived in the Cairngorms since 1952, as part of a move to reintroduce the species into Scotland.  The country ‘offered a habitat very similar to their homeland [of] Lapland’, and as a result, the herd thrived.  One of the really interesting elements of Reindeer: An Arctic Life is the information about the couple – Sami Mikel Utsi and his wife, Dr Ethel John Lindgren – who were responsible for reintroducing the animals.

Reindeer: An Arctic Life has been split into 15 chapters, which feature details about Smith’s reindeer.  It also, quite sweetly I felt, includes a reindeer family tree, with not a Rudolph in sight.  In her first chapter, Smith writes of the adverse weather conditions about to hit the Cairngorms, complete with 100mph winds.  She then comments: ‘In Alaska, one of the countries where caribou are naturally found, they say there are only two seasons, “snow” and “no snow”, and caribou thrive there.  They are lowly Arctic animals, totally at home in the coldest places in the world.’  During the wintry storm, therefore, the reindeer are quite in their element.  Reindeer, Smith tells us, ‘are amazing creatures; their coat is so well insulated that they can lie on the snow without melting it.  Also, snow that lands on their backs doesn’t melt – it remains frozen and can itself add to the insulation…’.

Reindeer: An Arctic Life is peppered with lovely woodcut illustrations.  Interesting facts about reindeer – called caribou in some countries – have been placed into small grey text boxes, and placed throughout.  Whilst I did enjoy reading these, their random placement was a little off-putting, and it was a little difficult to concentrate on the main body of text in consequence.  These facts could have easily been incorporated into the narrative, and did sometimes repeat details which had already been written about.

Smith’s writing is fine, but at no point did I feel blown away by it.  She does include a lot of information and detail – different species of reindeer and their habitats, as well as the way in which the creatures have adapted over time; how different seasons affect the herds; how reindeers socialise with one another; and the human influence upon reindeer, from the destruction of vital habitats, to the close bonds which can be formed between human and reindeer – but I felt that there was a strange lack of emotion throughout.  Some of the chapters end very abruptly too.

Whilst Reindeer: An Arctic Life is a nice enough wintry read, it lacks a little something – perhaps due to the overall detachment of Smith’s commentary.  I would recommend it for anyone keen to learn more about reindeer and their reintroduction to the United Kingdom, but it is by no means the best written book which looks at a single species.

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‘The Secret Life of Books: Why They Mean More Than Words’ by Tom Mole ***

I am drawn to books about books, and Tom Mole’s The Secret Life of Books: Why They Mean More Than Words really caught my eye. It is marketed as ‘the season’s ultimate gift for bibliophiles’, and certainly holds a lot of appeal for the more bookish members on this year’s Christmas list.

The Secret Life of Books is about ‘everything beyond the words on a page’, and focuses on the book as a physical entity. Mole has explored ‘how books feel and smell, books defaced by lovers and books in art to burned books and books that create nations’. He is concerned with how books and printing processes have evolved over time, along with their readers, and ‘about how books still have the power to change our lives.’

This book, written by the head of the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for the History of the Book, is described as a ‘stylish and thought-provoking exploration of the book as an object.’ Mole confesses that he is ‘not all that interested in books as things to read. Instead, I want to talk about all the other things that we do to books – and that books do to us.’ They are, he goes on to say, ‘part of how we understand ourselves. They shape our identities, even before we can read them.’

First published in 2019, The Secret Life of Books is filled with reminiscences of Mole’s own reading life, as well as anecdotes about books. It opens, for instance, with one of Mole’s university professors, whose books were rapidly taking over his room: ‘Every time I visited the professor’s office, it seemed a little harder than before to navigate a route across the room on the decreasing area of visible carpet… when I opened the door there was no professor to be seen – the room was full of books, but apparently empty of its occupant. For a moment, I would think perhaps the professor had been crushed under a toppling pile of hardbacks. Then his head would appear from behind a ziggurat of volumes on a bewildering variety of topics.’

Mole certainly presents a lot of interesting ideas about books within the pages of his own. These have been largely collected in vignette form, and gathered together. He writes that ‘to the careful observer, the book can be excavated like an archaeological dig, revealing layer upon layer of information about its previous users from the material traces they left behind them.’ He goes on to discuss holy books, book signings, book clubs, and bibliomancy – the rather unpredictable practice of using a randomly chosen page in a book to predict the future – and gives nods to many authors.

I was particularly taken with the musings he makes over the ownership of books, and what a privilege it is to be able to build a personal library. He writes: ‘Buying books, reading them, organising them and referring back to them – all these things seem to be distinct and different kinds of pleasure.’

I did find The Secret Life of Books became rather repetitive at times, but perhaps this is an inevitability given the subject matter. I enjoyed all of the bookish facts which the volume was peppered with, and found that the general approach took an interesting angle, but on the whole, it failed to captivate me entirely. The prose is consistent, as is the thematic structure, but on some level it did not quite work for me as a reader.

I will end my review with this rather prescient quote from The Secret Life of Books, concerning inheritance. Mole muses, as, I imagine, do many readers in possession of their own libraries: ‘What will become of my books? Not the ones I write, but the ones I own. No doubt, I have too many, and there will have to be some winnowing over the years ahead as I inevitably acquire more. But I’m equally certain that I’ll never get rid of all my books, and that when I do I’ll still own some of them. The paperbacks will probably be falling apart by then, but some of the hardbacks will easily survive me by many years. Books endure. And so – whether sold, gifted, donated or bequeathed – my books will find their ways to other owners and readers.’

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‘Fifty Words for Snow’ by Nancy Campbell ****

Nancy Campbell has been a writer on my radar for such a long time now, but I had yet to pick up one of her books – until, that is, a gorgeous hardback edition of her newest effort, Fifty Words for Snow, landed on my doorstep. It really appealed to the cold weather enthusiast in me, and it felt like a wonderful choice to incorporate into my autumnal reading, particularly as the days are getting steadily colder.

The idea for Fifty Words for Snow was born from Campbell’s research on ice. She was a Writer in Residence in Greenland during the winter of 2010, at the most northerly museum in the world, and her surroundings sparked this interest within her. Much of her work since – a decade spent on the ‘changing language and landscape of the Arctic’ – has revolved around cold weather, and what it means to us.

At this point in her life, Campbell tells us in her introduction, ‘… I was seeking to escape the distractions of a capital city. I needed white noise… There is much poignant art and literature about polar purity and silence, but the longer I spent among the snow [in Greenland], the more I suspected such tropes are born of luxury and distance. It is a view that overwrites the peopled landscape, ignores the tracks of sleds and snowmobiles that cross it, the busy burrows and root systems beneath it. As time passed and I looked more closely, I realised snow does not always appear white. As I listened more carefully, I realised that snow was not silent.’

As its title indicates, Fifty Words for Snow gives fifty international words for snow, many of them denoting very specific kinds. Campbell ‘digs deep into the meanings and etymologies, the histories and the futures of fifty words for snow from across the world, using them as clues to the many ways in which we are all connected to one another and to our planet.’ She writes about the shifting landscapes, as snow patterns change across the world: ‘Just as the ecosystem is changing, so are the languages that describe it and the way they are understood.’ Of her project, and her sustained interest within it, Campbell explains: ‘The process of tracing a single theme across many languages new to me seemed a powerful way to overcome the borders that were going up around the world.’

In her introduction, Campbell notes that ‘every language and culture has its own word for the magical, mesmerising flakes that fall from the sky.’ The words which the author has drawn together here come from a wealth of different languages and cultures: they range from Latvian and Scots, to Thai and Kashmiri; from Maōri and Mongolian, to Newfoundland English and Faroese. Some of the languages which Campbell has chosen to use are endangered, sometimes used by just a single community.

Each word which Campbell writes about – all of them randomly rather than geographically ordered, which I found an interesting touch – forms a short yet precise chapter. Some of these chapters, indeed, are only a paragraph or two long; others are far more detailed. Each begins with the chosen word and the language which it comes from, and then gives its specific translation, some of which are wonderfully precise. The Icelandic hundslappadrífa, for instance, means ‘snowflakes big as a dog’s paw’. In Finnish, tykky means ‘thick snow and frost that accumulates on tree branches and other structures.’ The Japanese word yuki-onna denotes a snow-woman, whose ‘skin is cold; her hair is silver; she dresses in white.’

Around the world, snow ‘may be welcomed, feared, played with or prized.’ Campbell is constantly aware of the reliance which different cultures have upon the snow. The Sámi language, for instance, ‘reflects the herders’ intimate relationship with their environment. The rich terminology for snow and ice includes words to describe the way snow falls, where it lies, its depth, density and temperature.’

Throughout, Campbell touches upon so many subjects. She writes about shepherds in the Scottish Borders, Greenlandic microbreweries, snowboarding, environmentally friendly fake snow made specifically for use on film sets, polar exploration, the building of igloos, avalanche prevention, and even the inspiration of snowy climates on the flags of several countries.

Fifty Words for Snow is both thoughtful and thorough. Campbell’s prose is lyrical, and holds such beauty about it. This work of non-fiction is clearly a labour of love, and it is a perfect choice to dip in and out of or, indeed, to read all in one go. Campbell’s book is far-reaching; she has tapped into so many languages and cultures, and gives fascinating details throughout. It will certainly make a lovely gift for the festive season, and there is something wonderfully comforting about it, too.

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‘Snow’ by Marcus Sedgwick ****

I found the lovely little hardback edition of Marcus Sedgwick’s Snow whilst browsing in the library, and added it to the already large pile weighing down my arms.  I have read a few of Sedgwick’s novels to date, but had never encountered his non-fiction work, and was suitably intrigued to start reading it as soon as I returned home.  It was the perfect addition to my seasonal reading pile, which I like to collate as soon as every season begins to shift into the next.

Sedgwick has always been fascinated by snow, and has travelled to many cold parts of the world in order to get closer to it.  After moving from Kent to a mountain chalet in France’s Haute-Savoie region, which borders Italy and Switzerland, ‘for the first time, he truly understood what it meant to live in a place where snowfall shaped the rhythms and boundaries of life.’

91vxoaic14lSnow is split into six sections, a number which has been selected to represent the six sides of a snowflake; a nice touch, I feel, and it is certainly an approach which works well.  In each of these chapters, Sedgwick explores ‘the art, literature and science of snow’, and places these alongside his own experiences.  Alongside this, he explores the wider implications of snowfall.  The blurb comments that Sedgwick also looks into ‘climate change for himself, asking if snow could become a thing of the past’ – rather a scary thought.

From the outset, Sedgwick’s descriptive writing really helps to set the scene.  He writes from his new home in France, commenting: ‘Looking down the valley now, between the humps of the nearby hills that lie like a line of vast migrating mammoths, the tip of the summit of Mont Blanc is making one of its rare appearances sans chapeau – without a hat – above the cloud that almost perpetually envelops the peak.  But yesterday the snow laid down its marker for the season, made its opening move, letting us know it’s on its way in earnest.  It is October 16.’

He opens with a fascinating section on the origins of different words for snow and their usage, before moving on to explore the scientific elements which will determine which kinds of snow will fall.  I admit that the science geek within me loved revisiting facts such as the following: ‘… the six-armed star shapes, known as dendrites, are not the only kind possible.  It’s also possible for snow to fall as needles, columns, hollow columns, six-sided prisms and plates.’  Sedgwick goes on to write: ‘Once snow lands, drifts, accumulates, thaws, refreezes, slides and so on, it develops even more intricacy, even greater wildness, but that’s another matter again.’

Sedgwick reminisces throughout the book about the winters of his childhood, and how they awakened his great love of snow; of ‘snowmen, snowball fights, icicles as dashers or as ice-dragon teeth, the snow seems to me now to have been a (literally) brilliant canvas for the imagination.’  His vision of the future is nowhere near as rosy as his reminiscences for years gone by, but his stark comments sadly feel realistic.  He comments: ‘At some point in our future then, there will be no more snow, no more ice…  Real snow – fresh, natural, ephemeral and almost supernatural – that will be gone.  Icicles like dragons’ teeth, lakes to skate on: these will be gone too.  The temperature of the world will have risen to the point where such things will live only in the memory of those old enough to remember, and then snow will take on itself an even deeper symbolism; it will become even more magical, mystical.  It will stand then for what we have lost.’

First published in 2016, and coming in at just over 100 pages, Snow would make a wonderful gift, or serve as a lovely choice for something a little different to read during the winter months.  It is a tome by a prolific but quite underrated author, and feels quite different from his other work which I have read to date.  One can see, however, in novels like My Swordhand is Swinging and Blood Red, Snow White, the influence of the winter.

Snow is absorbing, and the scope which Sedgwick has achieved within such a short book is admirable.  He continually notes how the weather is in the Haute-Savoie, and also beautifully captures how whole communities have come to live within, and rely upon, the snow.  He explores the myths and legends based around the snow – surprisingly few of them exist – and reinforces the power and reach of the snow as a weather phenomenon.  For a slim book, there is certainly a lot packed in, and much to consider.

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‘Wintering: A Season with Geese’ by Stephen Rutt

I adore books about the natural world, and find them both calming and peaceful to read – something which is very important, given the current state of the world. Stephen Rutt is a young naturalist who has published two non-fiction books; Wintering: A Season with Geese is his second.

Wintering was selected as one of the Times‘ Books of the Year 2019, and has been very highly praised. Jon Dunn in BBC Wildlife magazine writes: ‘Rutt’s dreamy prose is as cool and elegant as the season he charts’, and the Times calls it a ‘poignant testament to how we can find peace in the rhythms of the natural world.’ Waterstones calls it an ‘understated gem’.

In the autumn, Rutt swapped his life in Essex for a house near the Solway Firth in Dumfries, ‘a little town tucked away in the corner of Scotland, barely beyond the English border’. As he and his partner were settling in their new home, and their new country, thousands of pink-footed geese were also arriving from the Arctic Circle, to winter in Scotland. Their arrival is heralded each year as ‘one of the most evocative and powerful harbingers of the season.’

In his new surroundings, Rutt cannot help but notice geese; they seem to be everywhere around him. Although he had little curiosity regarding them before – he notes in his introduction that, in mid-September during his move, ‘I am not interested in geese yet’ – he embarks on an ‘extraordinary odyssey’, in which he ‘traces the lives and habits of the most common species of goose in the British Isles and explores the place they have in our culture and our history.’

In Wintering, Rutt has created what the book’s blurb hails ‘a vivid tour of the landscapes they inhabit and a celebration of the short days, varied weathers and long nights of the season.’ The author finds himself ‘celebrating the beauty of winter, when we share our home with these large, startling and garrulous birds.’

Wintering has been split into six different chapters, each of which corresponds to one of the most common species of geese in the United Kingdom. To be specific, these are the Pink-footed, Barnacle, Greylag, Brent, White-fronted, and Bean. In the book’s introduction, he notes that at the turn of winter: ‘Five wild species will head to Britain for the winter: a relative land of plenty, and gentler weather, respite from a north that is, still, ice-bloated and snowbound for the winter.’

Rutt had been a birder for a long time – ‘almost half my life,’ he says – but geese only became a fascination once he moved to Scotland: ‘Their habit of always just being there, their familiarity, bred apathy,’ he admits. His winter of geese begins on the 23rd of September, with a ‘simple arrow of birds as distant as the hills, heading south through the sunset.’ It is filled, then, with ‘wild half-count, half-estimates at the numbers passing overhead, between the fields north of the town and the Solway Firth to the south.’

Throughout Wintering, Rutt charts his journey into winter, and into his fascination with the geese: ‘I am falling more deeply for geese on a daily basis. Although I am told the winter won’t always be like this – they are wild geese after all, predictably unpredictable – the regular skeins flying over are captivating me. Sinking deep inside me… In a new place they are making me feel, tentatively, at home.’

From its very first page, where Rutt writes: ‘Autumn begins as a season for movement, and ends with everything changed’, one cannot help but be charmed by his pitch-perfect prose. He has such an awareness of the seasons, and of the birds which populate them. Early on, he writes: ‘Birds penetrate my year: time passes constantly but birds are the grammar of its passing, they give a rough working order to the months. I have my totems: the first singing chiffchaff at the beginning of spring and the first screeching swift at its end. The silencing of song at the end of summer; the disappearance of the swifts and the arrival of autumn.’

Rutt’s descriptions provide scenes so vivid that they are almost tangible to the reader: ‘Suddenly – geese, pushed over by the weather, heading to the Solway. A chaos of pink-footed geese, stretching across the horizon. There are thousands, the skeins straggling, struggling without a set order, flying in all directions. Lead geese swapping with others. Individuals peeling off and joining other groups, geese like a kaleidoscope of panic. Their honking sounds urgent. Wings labouring, growing damp in the rain, energy sapped by the wind.’ Later is this: ‘A hare basks in the middle of a field, in front of a dense barnacle goose flock, their monochrome plumage burning bright in the sun. The silver flanks dazzle, the white and black bars on their backs are like sharp light and thick shadow.’

Throughout, Rutt has sprinkled some really interesting facts about geese alongside his own observations. He writes, for instance, that the Bean goose is now so rare in the county of Dumfries and Galloway that ‘if you see one you have to write a description of it for a panel of four men to adjudicate on whether you are correct.’ He also writes about the fluctuation of population sizes, which are largely due to indiscriminate hunting, and the subsequent banning of this practice.

Throughout Wintering, Rutt discusses many elements which surround geese and their place in the world – their history, different migratory patterns, the uses for their meat and feathers, the domestication of various species, and geese in art and literature. He also touches upon conservation in many of the chapters which make up the book.

It was a wonderful thing, to revisit Scotland alongside Rutt. Although he lives in and describes a part of Scotland which I have never been to, having lived in Glasgow for three years, I recognised the often stark beauty of the landscapes which he writes about: ‘It is a bleak, dreich day: October by calendar, deep into winter by spirit. I can only faintly see the first line of hills. The trees reduced to pale grey shadows, their shapes indistinct in the weather.’

Wintering is a real delight, particularly to snuggle down with on a cool autumn or winter evening. It is clear that Rutt has such an interest in his chosen subjects; indeed, he writes: ‘My love of geese might be recent, but it connects me with a human fascination extending back for millennia.’

1

‘To the Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace’ by Kapka Kassabova ****

Before the virus completely took over 2020, and made it almost impossible to travel without a two-week quarantine, my boyfriend and I had planned a trip to North Macedonia. We were intending to end our holiday with a wild swim at Lake Ohrid, somewhere we have wanted to visit for years. We are hoping that we will be able to embark on this trip at some point during 2021, but for now, I reached for the closest thing I could find – Kapka Kassabova’s non-fiction title To the Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace.

The Balkans is an area which I have travelled in relatively extensively already, but I find it fascinating to see regions which I love – as well as those which I have yet to visit – through the eyes of someone who is somehow connected to the physical place. Kassabova’s maternal grandmother grew up in the town of Ohrid, beside the lake, which lies ‘within the mountainous borderlands of North Macedonia, Albania, and Greece’. Lake Ohrid, and also Lake Prespa, which can be found relatively nearby, are located in ‘one of Eurasia’s most historically diverse areas’, and are the two oldest lakes in Europe. Ohrid and Prespa are joined by an underground river, and span these aforementioned borders.

‘By exploring on water and land the stories of poets, fishermen, and caretakers, misfits, rulers, and inheritors of war and exile,’ declares the blurb, ‘Kassabova uncovers the human history shaped by the lakes.’ Alongside her personal journey to reach her family’s roots, the author makes ‘a deeper enquiry into how geography and politics imprint themselves upon families and nations.’

For Kassabova, this region, which has housed ‘generations of my predecessors… is a realm of high altitudes and mesmeric depths, eagles and vineyards, orchards and old civilisations, a land tattooed with untold histories.’ The focus of To the Lake, as outlined in the introduction, is as follows: ‘Geography shapes history – we generally accept this as a fact. But we don’t often explore how families digest big historo-geographies, how these sculpt our inner landscape, and how we as individuals continue to influence the course of history in invisible but significant ways – because the local is inseparable from the global. I went to the Lakes to seek an understanding of such forces.’

The first chapter of To the Lake opens with Kassabova’s recollections of her maternal grandmother’s death. Her descriptions of her grandmother, Anastassia, which she goes on to reveal piece by piece, are so vibrant: ‘Surrounded by the mediocrity, conformity and mendacity that a totalitarian system thrives on, Anastassia lived with zest, speaking her mind in a society where half the population didn’t have a mind and the other half were careful to keep it to themselves.’ Her descriptions of her family particularly really stand out; she describes her mother thus, for example: ‘She always felt to me precariously attuned to life, as if born rootless, as if needing an external force to earth her.’

Some of Kassabova’s writing is undoubtedly beautiful – for instance, when she writes ‘Ohrid made you feel the weight of time, even on a peaceful evening like this, with only the screech of cicadas and the shuffle of old women in slippers’ – but there are some quite abrupt sentences and sections to be found within To the Lake. It does not feel entirely consistent at times, and Kassabova does have a tendency to jump from quite an involved history of the area to a conversation with someone who lives there, and often back again, without any delineation. This added a disjointed feel to the whole. However, the value and interest of the information which she presents was thankfully too strong for this to put me off as a reader.

To the Lake is certainly thorough; it was not a book which I felt able to read from cover to cover in one go, as it is so intricate – both in terms of the history and geography of the region, and of Kassabova’s own family. There is a great deal within the book which explores national divides throughout the lake region, as well as the religions which are practiced. Kassabova seems to focus far more upon the differences of the people whom she meets, than their similarities. There are some brief nods to fascinating Slavic folktales along the way, which I wish had been elaborated upon. Regardless, To the Lake is an important book, and an ultimately satisfying one, which I would highly recommend.

3

‘Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P.L. Travers’ by Valerie Lawson ***

Since I was a child, I have loved P.L. Travers’ original Mary Poppins stories.  Like many of my generation, I am sure, my first introduction to Mary Poppins was in the incredibly saccharine Disney film adaptation, but I was absolutely thrilled to discover the original, sassy Mary not long afterwards.  I know relatively little about the author, aside what I gleaned from the Saving Mr Banks film, and when I received a copy of journalist Valerie Lawson’s Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P.L. Travers, I was eager to find out what else I would discover.

9781476762920Helen Lyndon Goff, who later adopted the pen name Pamela Lyndon (P.L.) Travers, was born in Australia.  Her father, an Irishman ‘nowhere near good enough’, died in his early forties, ‘his life unfulfilled, his family left destitute and forced onto the charity of rich but emotionally chilly relations.’  Travers was the eldest of three girls, and went to live with her maiden aunt for a time when her youngest sister was born, and again with her mother and siblings after her father died.  Travers moved to London in 1924, in order to pursue her career in journalism.  Here, she ‘became involved with theosophy, traveled in the literary circles of W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot, and became a disciple of the famed spiritual guru Gurdjieff.’  She published the first Mary Poppins book in 1934.

We learn about Travers’ ancestors very early on, as well as the ways in which their decisions affected her life, both as a young girl, and later as an adult.  After the passing of her father, she went through life determined to find her own ‘Mr Banks’, a father figure who would look after her.

In her preface, Lawson writes: ‘[Mary] Poppins has lasted because she is as peculiar as she is kind, as threatening as she is comforting, as stern as she is sensual, as elusive as she is matter of fact.’  She goes on to acknowledge that P.L. Travers stipulated that she ‘did not want a biography written about her after her death’.  As is clear from her biographical subject, she disregarded this, and began her five-year “Pamela Hunt” that took her down ‘unexpected paths, both geographically and emotionally…  Her life was much more than I ever imagined.  My life expanded in the writing of hers.’

Mary Poppins, She Wrote has been split into three separate sections, which correspond to the three stages of womanhood which Travers believed in: ‘The Nymph’ (1899-1934), ‘The Mother’ (1934-1965), and ‘The Crone’ (1965-1996).  Some of the chapters open with an imagined narrative, which features Lyndon as a character.  These are often short, and I would argue that, although they are nicely written, they do not add a great deal to proceedings.

Lawson ponders throughout the various inspiration for Mary Poppins.  She writes of Travers’ fascination for fairytales when she was a child: ‘She liked the wickedest women most…  She was fascinated by the evil forces of the stories, the black sheep, the wicked fairy.’  She then goes on to examine the quite traumatic elements of Travers’ childhood, and the effects of her ‘cool yet unconventional parents’, which culminated in her ‘thriving on what was difficult.’  Throughout, there is a lot of literary criticism of the Mary Poppins books, as one might expect.  Whilst interesting, these sections are sometimes a little longwinded, and the details feel a little repetitive from time to time.  The same can be said for the exploration of Travers’ forays into spirituality.

Mary Poppins, She Wrote has a rather low average rating on Goodreads.  Other reviewers have written about some of the qualms they had with Lawson’s book; these almost always mention her exemplary research, but also her ‘sloppy’ writing, and a feeling of general disinterest in Travers’ own work.  However, as the only comprehensive biography of the rather mysterious P.L. Travers, Mary Poppins, She Wrote is the tome which curious readers will inevitably pick up.

I found the prose of Mary Poppins, She Wrote fitting given the subject matter, and was compelled to read the entirety of the book, but I must admit that after finishing it, I do not feel as though I know a great deal more about P.L. Travers.  Some elements of her life were glossed over, and I would have appreciated more depth of information throughout.  In consequence, Travers still comes across as a figure shrouded in mystery.

Whilst interesting enough, Mary Poppins, She Wrote had an approach which was perhaps a little too detached.  It did not feel, at any point aside from what she stresses in her preface, that Lawson was really connected with Travers.  The construction of Mary Poppins, She Wrote is just a little too choppy.  I would not discourage anyone from reading it, as Travers was a fascinating woman by all accounts, but it is definitely not the most thorough work of biography which I have picked up this year.